At Los Angeles International Airport, it’s possible to park your car in an external lot and watch the behemoth bellies of modern airplanes descend less than a football-field length above you. The sight is rather stunning, a rumbling assault on the senses, bearing witness to the simultaneously crude and sophisticated fulfillment of humanity’s bird envy.
I try not to park there, though, because I don’t go to airports to watch the landings, and when I do go I am eager to get to the gate as quickly as possible. There are few things more annoying to me in this precious life than rushing to get to an airport gate on time.
In high school, on more than one occasion, I drove to Los Angeles International Airport, not to watch the airplanes as I might be inclined to do today, but to people-watch. It was before the days of hijacking and high security, so you could walk directly to the gates as people boarded and deplaned. I would sit in the terminal and watch people as they tearfully embraced their child going off to school, or sobbing with joy as their family members returned from a trip to some strange, distant place, such as Chicago or DesMoines. I felt, even then, that my voyeuristic tendencies were quirky; other kids went surfing or worked on their cars which they rarely took anywhere. I don’t know how my voyeurism served me—maybe some sort of vicarious vitality revealed in the adventure of travel, the tenderness and occasional curious vacancy in the greetings. I remember wanting to know the stories behind the greetings: where did they go on their travels? Who were they? What called them? What kind of adventure did they have? Why, I wondered, did some people cry with joy or pain, while others seemed aloof and disinterested?
Once, a friend and I walked through a door and found ourselves on the tarmac. When we tried to get back in, the door behind us locked. We saw a group of people deplaning and entering the terminal through a different door. We joined the group, but when we got through the doors we were asked for our passports, and when we explained that we were locals who went through the wrong door, we were taken for stowaways, separated, and brought to small rooms where we waited for the police to arrive. We were searched and interrogated, and I recall one unfriendly officer threatening to anally probe me—although in the mist of time I’m not sure whether that was a real threat or an imagined manifestation of an incipient homosexual panic. (I think I recall asking my friend, who had been taken to a separate room, whether they did that to him as well, and he said they had.) Eventually we were released after a yellow card with our vital information on it was recorded and we were told never to appear at the airport again. I imagine that card no longer exists, and maybe even was trashed shortly after it was filled out, but if they really did keep it on file it would be a wonderful souvenir.
Since becoming a certificated general aviation pilot, airports have taken on a new meaning. Rather than places to go to watch and envy the life of others, I now go there to live the life I envied. I have the opportunity to see airports from the side of the passenger and the pilot. Yet, occasionally, just to relax, I will sit on a bench at my local small airport and watch airplanes take off and land. And just recently, I went to Los Angeles International Airport, nearly 50 years after being a suspected stowaway, to pick up my wife and daughter. I arrived early, so went to the cell phone waiting area—something that didn’t exist back then, got out of my car and stared upwards at the awesome sight of those behemoth bellies, undercarriages exposed, eager to greet the waiting tarmac. And it was beautiful.